The Fish River Canyon
There are too many words to describe the Fish River Canyon. Massive. Magnificent. Humbling. When we decided to do this hike, I immediately hit good old Google to find out as much info as I could. I found very little info, not just on the hike itself, but also about Namibia in general, and the Ai-Ais resort where we’d be staying before and after our hike. I thought, as a gift both to myself and others, I’d use this opportunity to depart my (dubious) wisdom.
Firstly, if you can, cut your trip in half. It’s more than a 12 hour drive to Ai-Ais from Pretoria, and crossing the border is done on Namibian time, which, if you are familiar with African time, is a lot slower. Aggressively so. We stopped in Upington on the way in, which is about an hour from the Nakop border, and around 4.5 hours from Ai-Ais itself. On the way home, we stopped in the small town of Vryburg, effectively making our first day each way the longer route.
Top Tips for Namibia
- There are very few fuel stations between Upington and Ais-Ais, so be sure to fill up in Upington. The few that you will find, take cash only. Rands or Namibian dollars, with change given in whatever mix of currency they have on hand.
- Remain patient, no matter how long service takes. Getting upset makes no difference whatsoever, and their unflappable nature, while vastly annoying, is strangely admirable.
- Take your own pen when crossing the border, and be prepared for no signs whatsoever on the Namibian side, and fair amount of pointing and gesturing when asking for help.
- Namibia’s gravel roads, or at least the approximately 75km one we drove on, was in better condition than a lot of the tarred roads in SA. Still, keep to the speed limit. There was a fatal bike accident on the road whilst we were staying at Ai-Ais.
Top tips for the Fish River Hike
- Don’t bother packing soap, shower gel, or shampoo. Trust me on this one – you’re too tired at the end of the day to bother with anything but the basics. We swam in the rivers every day, and still managed not to stink each other out. Besides, stinky people can be a great incentive to lead the pack.
- If you’re wearing a cap (yes, a cap, not those hats with the side-flaps), then for the love of human skin, remember sunblock on the tips of your ears. I forgot to apply for just one day, and for the rest of the hike, my husband joked he could smell bacon every time he came near me. #funnynotfunny
- There was much debate in our group regarding wearing shorts versus long pants. I opted for shorts, and was very happy with my choice as far as the heat was concerned, but I paid for it in spades (get it, spades?) of sand in my shoes. It must be said though, that those with long pants didn’t manage to completely avoid sandy socks, but I dare say carried a lot less of it in their shoes than I did.
- Burn your toilet paper. Yes, you will have the indignity of choosing a large boulder, or scraggly bush, and making it your toilet. Repeat after me. Step one: dig a hole. Step two: do your business. Step three: after wiping, set your toilet paper alight. (A word of warning: it does not burn as fast as you would think. Keep an eye on your mini fire). Step four: cover hole.
- Weight is the most important factor. The terrain in the canyon is like the weather in Cape Town, it changes abruptly, and without warning. One minute you’ll be up to your ankles in the kind of thick sand that should only be found on beaches. The next, you’ll be wobbling like a new-born calf as you try to figure out how to climb the next boulder in front of you, on a stretch of boulders a kilometre long. Other times, you’ll find your path strewn with many large, smooth-faced rocks, which, if you’re coordinated (unlike me), you’ll build a rhythm of moving along and placing your feet just so. With too much weight, you’ll be unbalanced, and you’ll be more focused on staying upright than taking in the scenery. I carried 17kgs, and weight in our group varied from 16kgs to around 24kg. I would advise keeping it to 16kgs, if you possibly can. Keep in mind that your pack weight will vary as you go – obviously the more you eat, the lighter it will get, but it also depends on the amount of water you’re carrying. I litre of water equals roughly 1kg.
- Speaking of hydration, you’ll be told to take at least 3 litres of water with you for the descent. Trust me when I say that this is far too much. It took us 1 hour and 40 minutes to get to the bottom, and another half hour or so to reach the river. The descent is steep and tiring, so don’t overburden yourself. We did the hike from the 6th of September until the 10th, we always had enough water, except when we took the shortcuts.
- Carry a map with you to navigate the canyon. This one is the most helpful – just try to print it in colour. It may seem obvious at first, because the canyon starts out fairly narrow, but the further you go the more it widens, and one of our group, who’d gone ahead, nearly took a wrong turn. It also helps if at least one of your group members has a decent sense of direction.
- Stick to the left side of the river. Only leave the river if you take the shortcuts, of which there are several on the trail. Sticking to the left side will mean cutting out unnecessary distance to get to the same place. If you take the shortcuts, look out for the markers – some have the word ‘cut’ written on a rock, some have an arrow, still others will be marked by several small towers of rocks placed on top of each other by each passing group of hikers. Taking the shortcuts means cutting out around 10kms of the hike, shortening it from 90kms, to 80. I believe you do miss some of the scenery doing so, but 90kms is a lot of distance to walk in just 5 days. You can, of course, decide to add in an extra day if you want to hike the whole route.
- Don’t underestimate the heat. Although we were told to avoid hiking during the hottest time of the day, from around noon to around 3pm, we found that we had to hike most of the day to cover the necessary distances. It’s a very different trail to the Otter – it’s dry and hot, with very little shade for long stretches, and the small comforts of the Otter, like a roof over your head, and bunk and mattress, is something you forgo in the canyon.
- Make sure you’ve packed something sweet for each day, especially if you have a sweet tooth. Some days, having that roll of Super Cs, or that box of Astros, was the only thing that lifted my spirits.
- Try and go with a mixed group of people. It keeps things interesting, and sometimes you’ll need that person who is persistently, annoyingly, upbeat, and at other times you’ll need the person you can complain to about your growing blisters, the constant grit in your water, or that person in your group who’s annoyingly upbeat.
- One of the couples in our group brought a tent, which they’d bought in Poland. If the tent weighs just over a kilogram, as theirs did, then by all means bring it along. The wind tends to pick up at night, and getting sand-blasted isn’t something that’s conducive to a good night’s sleep. If it’s heavier though, refer to my point about the weight issue. The rest of us slept out in the open, with a light groundsheet, a mattress, sleeping bag and pillow. For me, falling asleep underneath the star-spangled banner of the sky was worth forgoing a tent.
- Because you stop where you like on this hike, you need to gauge how far you’ve walked each day, in order to plan the days ahead, and the distance you’d like to cover. We were advised the following: to stop around 5 – 6kms after you’ve done the descent on day one. Day two, to stop at Palm Springs. If you follow these guidelines, you’ll only be 16kms into the hike in total at the end of day two. That’s what we did, which meant the next 3 days meant covering around 20kms each day. On day three, it’s advised to stop near Table Mountain (not the one found in Cape Town, obviously. If you’re there, then you’re on the wrong hike). We found we hadn’t covered nearly enough distance to stop there, so we kept going. Be advised, that there are not many hiking spots after leaving Table Mountain behind. We had to walk for many kilometres afterwards before we finally found a camping spot, and it was less than ideal as the water was very murky and not as clean as the water we’d encountered on the trail thus far. Four Finger Rock is the next recommended camping spot, although if the rock we saw was, indeed, the four finger one, I have no idea where people are expected to stop, because there was no water nearby as far as I could recall.
- Keep in mind that for a decent camping spot you need three things: water, sand (the soft kind – it makes a good sleeping spot in terms of having a softer terrain to sleep on) and flat, large rocks (for making dinner, boiling water, and as a makeshift table). It’s also ideal to have some kind of buffer for the wind, even if you just make your own. We used our trekking poles and our towels, setting it up in the general direction the wind was blowing in.
- For great hiking kit and advice from those who have done this hike, and many others, visit Hiker’s Paradise in Centurion.
- You can’t do the hike without going to the doc for a medical certificate. Download it here.
- Most of all, just enjoy it. The constant sand, the tricky terrain, the heat and the exhaustion are all present, but it’s the kind of experience you never forget. Seeing the canyon from the top doesn’t showcase its extravagant beauty. It’s the crags in the rocks, the blue of the sky, the gold of the canyon as the sun hits it a certain angle. It’s the blessed release from technology, people and smog. The rhythm of your days, with nothing to rush you along, nothing vying for your attention, except nature itself.